Freetown, Baby!

Sign Language by jc2010sl
April 15, 2011, 2:57 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: ,

Despite being the official language, there are occasional signs that English isn’t the first language in Salone. Sometimes its the choice of archaic vocabulary; people are asked to “proffer” views, and situations are often described as “obtaining”. But sometimes you’re just hit with a phrase that an English speaker of English would never use.

I can only wonder at the dregs of Freetown society left on the shelf from “Desperate Chicks Vol. 1”.

Revellers would probably do well to take heed of this warning on the Masiaka highway.

Safe journey? I’m not so sure.


The Big Society by jc2010sl
March 17, 2011, 11:17 am
Filed under: public life | Tags: , ,

I got a rather bizarre message in the email circular to the Freetown expat community last Friday. “The government has declared that there is street cleaning tomorrow. This means that no one is supposed to be on the roads between dawn and noon unless you are helping to clean.” April fool come early I wondered? It turns out not. Some brave soul risked the prospect of arrest (or more likely public lynching) for being out without a dust pan and brush and confirmed that everyone else was indeed cleaning.

It’s an initiative spurred by the impending 50th Anniversary of Independence no doubt. The same motivation to tidy the place up is doubtless what has prompted the good women of Hill Station to make huge pyres of “doti” (the generic term in Krio for any kind of dirt or rubbish) and burn them by the roadside creating a lethal smog.

There is an interesting political precedent here too. The “National Provisional Ruling Council” set up as a result of the 1992 coup introduced weekly cleaning days as a nod to civic unity and renewal. Many people look back on the days of the NPRC as a relatively benign period during the brutal civil war, and I’ve heard the cleaning days cited as an example of the good times. Not quite “at least the trains ran on time”, but that sort of thing.

Maybe here is an example of the “Big Society” our Government is trying to build in the UK…

“Usay yu de go?” by jc2010sl
March 4, 2011, 1:22 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags:

One of the things I miss about home is long walks in the park. For the most part, there just aren’t the places to wander. There are certainly no parks in Freetown, and while it definitely has a picturesque charm, a stroll through the city isn’t quite the relaxing turn that say, Hampstead Heath is. The beaches are beautiful of course, but places to loll about on, not stroll around. There are a couple of walks around the Krio villages on the peninsula, and it was one of these I tried last weekend.

Swinging down from the monstrosity that is the US Embassy (no photo or I’d currently be in some cell deep within) you come to Leicester village, a pretty Krio settlement at the back of town. It was a public holiday and there were a fair few people milling about the dusty streets. They were all pretty friendly, and a couple of them asked me “Usay yo de go?” – “Where are you going?” When I answered “A de waka nomo” – that I was just strolling around – they seemed a bit perplexed. “Funny white people” they must have thought to themselves, walking around to no purpose. I walked down the valley to the foot of the village to find an incredibly beautiful spot where small terraces have been built into the hillside and farmers are growing remarkably European vegatables; lettuce, cabbage and carrots among them.

On coming back to the top of the village I got talking to the family whose house I’d parked my car outside. It turned out the father wanted to send his son into town to get some kerosene for his generator – this a wealthy family with the mother a teacher and the father working as a Government printer. “Sure,” I said, “I’m not going straight to town, but I can drop him off closer in.” Spared half an hour’s walk before reaching a road decent enough to pick up public transport, the kid hurried over to the car. As we reached the turn-off for town, I said I was taking the other way but that I’d keep an eye out for him when I headed back, and would take him to town if I saw him. “Where are you going?” he asked, “Leicester Peak”, “I don’t mind coming”. Fair enough I thought, he probably doesn’t have much else to do. As we drove to the top he told me this was a spot his village often comes to at Easter for “outings”; outdoor public parties with huge sound systems and all manner of street vendors. “I haven’t been for a year,” he said “I like it up here.” While I read my book, he sat around, taking in the scenery.

“Right, we’re off” I said, and we headed into town. I wanted some bread only sold by street traders so I said I’d take him right to the petrol station. Bottom Mango roundabout didn’t have the stuff I was after so I headed further into town. “We won’t be too long,” I told the kid. After turning off from the petrol station, he looked forward at the road and said “A no wan de cam yet”.

It was a phrasing I hadn’t heard before, and I didn’t quite get what he meant. I seemed as though he was saying that he didn’t want to be there; “I do not want to be coming here yet”. “Cheeky kid,” I thought – I’ve just given him a lift all the way from his house to the filling station! On further quizzing it turns out he was saying that he’d never been down the road before. In this context “Wan de” meant “one day” rather than “want to be”. So the phrase meant “I haven’t one day (i.e. at all) come here yet (i.e. before)”.

Given this was one of the 3 main roads in the city, and that the boy had lived in Freetown all 13 years of his life, I was a little surprised. When we got to the roundabout at the foot of the hill, his eyes were bulging. “Is this where the beach is?” he asked. He hadn’t been to Lumley Beach either it seemed. As I dropped him off he thanked me and headed home. I wonder when he’ll next be in that part of town.

Taxi no make sense by jc2010sl
February 25, 2011, 12:30 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

Taxis and poda-podas in Freetown are always emblazoned with messages on their front and rear bumpers. Mostly these are religious professions or exhortations, and sometimes homespun wisdom; “Trust in God” and “Giver never lack” are common enough sights. Recently though, I’ve spotted some altogether more peculiar offerings.

Some are rather gnomic, like “Mi wan gren” which translates as “Myself alone”. Is the driver saying he doesn’t need help from anyone else, or that he’s abandoned in the world? Others are downright confusing, for example “10 * 1 = 11? Homework”. I asked my driver what this was about and after a lengthy pause he said, “Well, the answer to 10 times 1 is not 11, so the driver is saying if you think the answer is right, you need to do your homework.” I wasn’t convinced, but couldn’t come up with a better explanation myself. The oddest of all though was a message “Yu Nar Wak” – “You are a loser”. I can’t imagine painting that on a taxi is particularly good for business.

Moon Dust by jc2010sl
January 29, 2011, 2:59 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: ,

The Harmattan winds must be blowing. There aren’t many visible sign of the sandy dust, but in common with others, my eyes are sore from the fine particles. I was sat at my desk the other day when a colleague noticed my eyes and asked if I was OK. “Nothing serious,” I replied, “just the dust.” “As long as it’s not Apollo.” Apollo, it turns out, is conjunctivitis. How so? I wondered.

Apparently, there was a particularly bad outbreak of conjunctivitis in the early 70s. This co-incided with a rather bizarre gift to the people of Sierra Leone from Richard Milhous Nixon – a small moon rock brought back from a recent mission. So people concluded that moon dust was causing the problems with their eyes. And the name of the mission became synonymous with the condition – Apollo.


Green ink brigade by jc2010sl
January 15, 2011, 11:54 am
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: ,

I’ve been marking tests over the last week. When asked by a colleague if I could help out I said “Sure, can you give me a red pen to mark them?” “No,” came the abrupt response. “Only the President uses red ink in this building.” To make his point, my colleague brandished a document on his desk; “you see, the President wrote this,” he said, jabbing at some red annotations on the paper. “OK,” I said, “can I have a green pen?” An exasperated look came across his face. Only Ministers can use green ink it transpires. I asked him if he was winding me up. No, he assured me, and I believed him. The wind-up isn’t really part of Krio humour. “Are there any other restrictions I asked?” “No,” he said “you can write in brown, pink, yellow, whatever you want as long as it’s not green or red!”

As I walked out of his office, he called after me “and that’s why teachers say they are as important as the President!”


Bunce by jc2010sl
December 19, 2010, 12:27 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: ,

An hour’s boat ride up the Sierra Leone River lies a small deserted island. Around 250 Years ago there would have been a very different scene though, for the Island is Bunce; site of the largest British slave trading post in West Africa. Thousands of slaves were kidnappened in the interior, some from as far afield as Mali, and brought to the castle to be sold to plantation owners in South Carolina and Georgia.

On our way to the island we picked up our guide for the day – an old man from the village – who looked almost as old as the site itself. Despite his advanced years he was full of vitality; scurrying around the ruin, acting out terrible scenes and gesturing wildly to re-inforce his Krio.

Monkey bread; a peculiarly tasty sour-sweet fruit

As we wandered around the ruin, he traced the grim trial that the slaves themselves would have suffered. Shackled and terrified, they were brought from the jetty to a holding area and kept for several days inside a large hall. The Portuguese, who captured the fort for a time, created ventilation shafts to reduce the death rate. One can only assume they were motivated by profit rather than humanitarian concerns. As potential buyers arrived, the slaves were herded into a small room and denied water and food for several days. They were then brought into the exercise yard, men and women both, and forced to run circuits to demonstrate their strength.

Any who suitably impressed the buyers were duly sold and branded with the mark of their owner.

As horrific as the events that took place were, there is a slightly unreal quality about the place. After all, it’s a beautiful island, with an old ruin. Without a guide to explain what had happened, there would be no sign of its grim history. What really resonated with me was the small graveyard at the other end of the island. No monument here for the hundreds, and possibly even thousands of slaves who died as a result of their horrific treatment. Instead, it is the slave-owners who are commemorated here. Among the gravestones was one that particularly caught my eye. It was raised to a Sierra Leonean, and just about legible were the words “gratitude” and “faithful services”.

It brought home how totally the bonds of humanity were broken to sustain the institution of slavery.